New Tastes at Old Spago

For this entry into my Panamanian Cooking Series I want to feature Wolfgang Puck and Spago. You can’t really talk about iconic Hollywood restaurants without including Spago. But Spago is not all that it used to be. The new Spago in Beverly Hills represents a certain kind of dining in Los Angeles. Solid, dependable and perfectly delicious. It’s not where you would go exclusively to see stars. The food is too good for that, and while the occasional star certainly dines there, the new Spago seems to have the attention of the serious Los Angeles foodie.

But you know what? I preferred the old Spago, even though I rarely went during it’s hey days of the 1980s and early 1990s. In my mind there is something so elusive about the old Spago in West Hollywood, I can’t quite describe the vibe of the place. Though in my photos here I did try to capture the extravagant starkness mixed with a neon glow that seemed to pulse through the restuarant’s windows. It sat on a cliff above Sunset Blvd in old wood frame building with windows all around. In a city that puts a premiuim on views it had one of the best. Not that I ever got a window table there.

spago logoDespite the hugely “see and be seen” attitude about the old Spago, some very interesting new food was being served. It’s easy to forget that Asian Fusion was once a new sensation and Wolfgang Puck and Spago led the charge.

So when I go to Panama and cook classic Hollywood recipes for Boquete Gourmet, I want to include a recipe in my cooking demonstration that represents Spago. Most especially the casual, innovative style of food that was served in the old Spago. To make this point I have chosen a BBQ Shrimp with Ginger and Lime. While I can’t say for sure that this dish was ever served at the old Spago, I can say it was just these sorts of bold, grilled flavors that dominated the menu. CLICK here for a printable recipe.

And since I am having such trouble conveying the feeling that was once Spago I have decided to include an article from the New York Times that documented the last days of the old Spago.

The Old Spago For the Old Hollywood, Last Suppers at Spago

shrimp skewersBy BERNARD WEINRAUB

Published: March 30, 2001 in The New York Times

HOLLYWOOD, March 29— Angie Dickinson said a bit mournfully: ”We were in our prime. We were at our best. I’ll miss the place.” Jackie Collins exclaimed, ”It was my hangout, like a party every night.” And Tita Cahn, the widow of the lyricist Sammy Cahn, observed: ”Actually it was like the neighborhood candy store in Flatbush. Everyone was there.”

Hollywood, or at least a certain branch of what is now the old guard, is in mourning. Spago, a restaurant on a hill above a car rental agency in West Hollywood, is closing on Saturday night after 19 years. A haven for celebrities and moguls who sat at choice tables, Spago barely acknowledged average people, who were escorted to the back room, if they were lucky.

”What made the place was exclusivity,” said Sue Mengers, Hollywood’s top agent in the 1970’s and 1980’s. ”It was for the privileged few who could get into the section by the windows. It was like a private club. You knew that when you walked in and got seated in that golden section that you were accepted.”

Asked what she will miss about Spago, Ms. Mengers said tartly: ”Honey, I don’t miss Spago. I miss my youth.”

Actually Ms. Mengers and all the others who made Spago popular — like Billy Wilder, Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Sidney Poitier — can now drive about three miles away in Beverly Hills to the lavish new Spago, which opened in 1997. But the new Spago, with its big rooms and packed tables, hardly has the same sense of exclusivity.

In many ways, the closing of Spago follows a Hollywood tradition. Every decade or so, a restaurant opens that is clubby, lures paparazzi and seems emblematic of Hollywood style, at that particular moment — Romanoffs in the 1940’s, Scandia in the 1950’s, Chasen’s in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Ma Maison in the 1970’s.

The food itself was fixed in time. At Chasen’s, for example, where Ronald Reagan proposed to Nancy Davis, the top dishes were hobo steak, chili, deviled beef bones and banana shortcake, most of which are not found at the hipper health-conscious spots in town. As the clients aged, so did the restaurants.

Wolfgang Puck, the owner of Spago old and new, said the original was in a rickety building, the lease was up and he yearned to expand and open a larger kitchen. So Mr. Puck and his wife and partner, Barbara Lazaroff, opened a bigger showplace in Beverly Hills. Of course it’s just as hard to get reservations for average people in the new Spago as the old one.

”It was a symbol of a certain Hollywood that’s no longer around after great stars like Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart passed away,” Ms. Lazaroff said.

The new Hollywood stars like Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Russell Crowe, Angelina Jolie and Cameron Diaz do not hang out at the new Spago’s. They are at hipper restaurants like Dominick’s and Lucques and Ago and The Little Door.

But Spago, which replaced Ma Maison as the place to be seen, was obviously more than a place to eat Mr. Puck’s famous pizza of smoked salmon, crème fraîche, chives, red onion and a dollop of caviar.

It was a place for rich and famous people to gather, and where Irving (Swifty) Lazar held his annual Academy Awards party.

”Beverly Hills is like a college town, but we’re all living off campus,” Ms. Cahn said. ”And Spago was like the campus restaurant.”

For the last two nights, this famous restaurant on Horn Avenue has had a series of final dinners for regulars who represent almost a who’s who of old-line Hollywood.

The guest list on Wednesday night was eclectic: Warren Beatty, Aaron Spelling, Louis Jourdan, Jacqueline Bisset, Milton Berle, the veteran Variety columnist Army Archerd, Sydney Pollack, Norman Jewison, Carroll O’Connor, Mitzi Gaynor and artists like David Hockney and Ed Ruscha.

”So many celebrities say they like privacy, but they used to come to Spago to look at each other,” said Mr. Archerd, who has written his Hollywood column for 48 years. ”Nothing’s taken its place.”

bbq shrimpSpago, and Mr. Puck and Ms. Lazaroff, had an impact on food and restaurant styles not only in Los Angeles, but also in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas and other cities. Ms. Lazaroff, a designer, built a big open kitchen in the midst of the dining area, which was unusual for an expensive restaurant. And the California cuisine, although developed at the same time at restaurants like Chez Panisse Cafi in Berkeley and Michael’s in Santa Monica, flourished at Spago partly because the Austrian-born Mr. Puck added elements of European and Asian cuisine.

Mr. Puck said the name Spago, which means ”string” in Italian, came from the composer Giorgio Moroder. Before the restaurant opened on Jan. 16, 1982, Mr. Puck, who was chef at Ma Maison, was raising money from investors. Mr. Moroder suggested calling the restaurant Spago because he was planning to write a musical of that name.

”I said, ‘I don’t care what it’s called, as long as you give me the money,”’ Mr. Puck recalled. ”In the end he didn’t invest the money but I kept the name.”

”He invested in another restaurant that went broke,” Mr. Puck said with a laugh.

Mr. Moroder was a guest at Spago’s farewell dinner on Wednesday night.